First People's

Presence in Trinidad And Tobago

As far as the pre-Columbian background in terms of demography and aboriginal cultures, the Amerindians of the Caribbean area grew out of the tropical forest Indian culture, which extended all the way from the upper Amazon basin in Peru to Venezuela, the Guianas and the West Indies. They included two major language families - the Arawakans and the Cariban. According to our historians and the Arawakan Tribe dominated the Caribbean Islands. They were settled communities with agricultural based economies, and having well developed cultures. The Cariban societies never achieved the state of civilization displayed by the Arawakan tribes; they were more nomadic than the Arawaks.

Trinidad being the closest island to mainland, separated by just seven to eight miles at its closest point, obviously was the first point of entry or the gateway to the Caribbean. Our historical records show that Amerindian Peoples have existed in Trinidad for as many as six thousand years before the arrival of Columbus and numbered at least forty thousand at the time of Spanish settlement in 1592.

Trinidad was populated by several tribes, as it was a transit point in the Caribbean network of Amerindian trade and exchange. Amerindian tribes were referred to as Kalipuna, Carinepogoto, Carine, Arauca. Amerindian words and place names survive into the present: the Caroni and Oropouche rivers; the Tamana and Aripo mountains; places such as Arima, Paria, Arouca, Caura, Tunapuna, Tacarigua, Couva, Mucurapo, Chaguanas, Carapichaima, Guaico, Mayaro, Guayaguayare.

According to the records available, some groups had established settlements while others moved from place to place. Arima was not sited as having an established settlement but the Amerindians must have traversed this area. The historical overview ‘A Short History of Santa Rosa De Arima’ by Jean Patricia Elie, states, “...Arima was effectively Indian Territory. For most of the 16th and 17th centuries the district of Arima was the home of the Nepuyo whose active resistance to Spanish Rule effectively limited Spanish attempts to control and settle northern Trinidad. The best known of the Nepuyo was the war chief, Hyarima, who continuously harassed Spanish settlements from his base in Arima.”

The Amerindians developed the canoe, the bow and arrow, and the ajoupa. Amerindian cuisine is enjoyed by many Trinidadians: Cassava bread and Farine; Warap; barbecued wild game; corn pastelles; coffee; cocoa; chadon beni. Parang music, which is popular at Christmas time in Trinidad, is a hybrid of Spanish and Amerindian musical styles.



Hyarima was said to be born around the beginning of the 17th century and was probably Nepuyo, which was a tribe of Araucan. He grew up in one of the northern encomiendas, but it was not clear if this was Tacarigus or Arauca. Around 1625, he escaped from the slavery and harsh conditions of the encomienda into the northeastern area of the island which was outside Spanish control.

Hyarima's military prowess, and relentless determination to rid his country of Spanish colonists made him the obvious choice for warchief. He was an able leader and a great warrior, and he soon formed military alliances with Amerindian groups in the neighbouring islands, as well as with Dutch traders in Tobago.

In 1636 and 1637, he joined with Dutch forces based in Tobago to raid Spanish outposts in Trinidad and along the Orinoci. On October 14th 1637 the most devastating attack was carried out against St. Joseph, the main Spanish settlement on the island. During the attack, the Church and town buildings were looted and burned to the ground, with significant loss of life. The destruction of the town forced the survivors to withdraw temporarily to the main land.

Hyarima was both feared and respected by the Dutch and Spanish forces, who referred to him as ‘the great Chieftain of the Nepuyo people’, and his military activity in the North East of the island was one reason why the Spanish authorities were never able to effectively establish control of this area. His fierce and profound hatred of the Spanish extended to the Church and its missionaries and he resisted their entry into his lands.

It is often thought that Arima was named after Hyarima, but it is more likely that he took his name from Arima when elected Chieftain, as it was Araucan custom to name their Chiefs and Caciques after the villages and settlements.

Hyarima the folk hero has many attributes of the man - a great warrior and chieftan who devoted his life to preserving the way of life of his people and to expelling the Spanish invaders from their ancestral lands.

A statue of Hyarima is located in the heart of Arima on Hollis Avenue. It was unveiled on 25 May, 1993, in keeping with the theme The year of the Indigenous People (a declaration of the United Nations Assembly). It was designed and created by the versatile artist Selwyn Borneo of Malony Gardens, D’ Abadie. The statue stands thirteen feet high, its frame work is made of steel and the exterior is of a concrete type mix. The statue is finished in bronze paint.

Hyarima projects the image of the great warrior which he was, dressed in loincloth alone - bare back, bare foot and carrying a spear. The statue was placed in a rustic setting, symbolic of the forest glades of the 17th century Arima that Hyarima and his people inhabited.




  • 1592 - Amerindian population of Trinidad numbered at around 40,000
  • 1634 - Amerindian population of Trinidad numbered at around 4,000
  • 1699 - The Arena uprising: The Amerindians on the Arena Catholic Mission rebel against the forced labour of the encomienda system, reportedly killing the priests in charge and the Spanish governor of the island before escaping to the Nariva swamp. The rebels were tracked down and arrested.
  • 1749 - Amerindian Mission established in Arima
  • 1754 - Mission abandoned and forgotten for thirty years.
  • 1784 - Governor Don Jose Maria Chacon arrived in Trinidad
  • 1785 - Amerindians from the established Nepuyo encomienda villages at San Agustin de Arauca, San Pablo de Tacarigua and Caura were relocated to Arima
  • 1786 - The Mission of Arima was dedicated to Santa Rosa de Arima



From as early as 1513, efforts were made to Christianise the Amerindians of Trinidad. Despite the hostility from the Amerindians towards these efforts at conversion, the Spanish Capuchins of the Province of Catalan, of the Order of St Francis, responded to the king's invitation to send missionaries to Trinidad. In August 1687 a group of 10 Capuchins landed here. Their role was to encourage the Amerindian people to work on the land where missions were established, to train them to accept the lifestyle of Spanish society, and to instruct them in the teachings of Christianity.

The tribes in the Arima area kept Spanish colonisation of the area at bay for a long time. It wasn't until 1749 the Capuchin monks were able to establish the Mission of Santa Rosa de Arima. It was named after Santa Rosa de Lima, the first saint of the New World.

According to Carib oral tradition, Rosa was born in Arima to Spanish parents while staying in Trinidad on their way to South America. Legend tells the story of three Carib hunters of the Carinepogoto Tribe who, while hunting in the Pinto forest, stumbled across a young, seemingly mute girl. They thought she was lost, so they took her back to their village (which extended from the present Santa Rosa Church to Calvary Hill).

The village priest saw that she was not a child, but a spirit. Three times she disappeared and three times they brought her back. They believed her to be the manifested spirit of Santa Rosa, willed back to Arima where she was born. The priest told them to make an image of her while she was still among them and this they did. It is said that as soon as the statue was completed, the "girl" disappeared forever. This cherished statue of Santa Rosa is enthroned and displayed during the traditional High Mass of the Santa Rosa Festival in August. The statue is then sheltered by a canopy and carried in procession through Arima.

The hunters returned to the spot where they had found the girl, and there they found a necklace and a crown of roses in the colours pink, yellow, red and white. The necklace was said to have miraculous powers and was worn by the queen of the tribe as a sign of sovereignty. It has since been lost. The roses are now the accepted symbol of the Santa Rosa Caribs.

Carib oral tradition has it that Anacoana, the daughter of Hyarima, was the first of the tribe to be baptised a Roman Catholic and is known as the ancestress of the Carib Queens.

Every year, Catholics and indigenous people from around the country, the Caribbean and North America come to the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic Church on the last Sunday in August to observe the feast of Santa Rosa de Lima.

"Carib Legacy in Arima" by Kelene Blake. The Catholic News. Sunday January 30, 2005.



Arising out of a need to preserve the history and inheritance of our indigenous people, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago re-appointed the Amerindian Project Committee in July, 2006 and subsequently in December 2009 for three-year terms of office. Their mandate was to advise the Government on the development of the Amerindian Community in Trinidad and Tobago and further be responsible for formulating policies for the indigenous people of Trinidad and Tobago. In executing this they would examine the issues such as land settlement, protection of sacred sites, school curriculum revival and coordinate exchanges with other indigenous people.

Two major contributions fuel and under-gird this decision. Firstly, the extremely valuable accomplishments locally of the Santa Rosa Carib Community, an indigenous group which is based in Arima, whose members have tirelessly labored over the past years to preserve our indigenous heritage. Secondly, the decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to recognize and observe International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, the first of which was celebrated on the 9th day of August 1994. The First International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004) was then designated and the second decade is being observed from 2005-2014. The main focus is in the areas of culture, education, health, human rights, the environment and social and economic development using “action oriented programmes”.

The Santa Rosa First Peoples Carib Community is recognized by government as the legitimate representative of Trinidad and Tobago’s indigenous people and in 1993 received a National Award (Chaconia Silver) for work done in the field of culture and community service. The group was also instrumental in getting government to designate October 14th as a day in acknowledgement and appreciation of our indigenous Amerindian legacy. The day termed “Amerindian Heritage Day” gives special prominence to the contribution made to our nation by our ancestral people.

A Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity is being emphasized by UNESCO in the celebration of this the Second Decade (2004-2014) of the World’s Indigenous people. It is with this in mind that during the week of October 14th to October 20th 2012 the celebrations of Amerindian Heritage Day will be hosted by the Santa Rosa First Peoples Carib Community in collaboration with the Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration. Highlighted activities range from the Annual Smoke Ceremony, Opening Ceremony, Tree Planting Ceremony, NAPA Cultural Show featuring the play “I Hyarima”, to the Heritage Fair and Cultural Show carded for Friday 19th October and the Heritage Tour of Arima on Saturday October 20th.

Trinidad and Tobago continues to intensify its efforts at promoting and supporting the recovery of our indigenous heritage by creating and disseminating, in a fair environment, the cultural goods and services and the traditional expressions of our Amerindian People.




The Carib Queen is a titular figure whose main role is to oversee all preparations for the Santa Rosa Festival. She is an elder matron of the Carib Community who is elected for her knowledge of Carib traditions, her ability to pass on that knowledge and offer training in weaving skills amongst other things, and for her ability to deal with the public, receive visitors, and maintain a high standard of protocol on public occasions.

The Santa Rosa Carib Festival takes place in August and is intended to pay tribute to the First Peoples of the New World, and to expose their culture to the nation. The ceremonies include the crowning of the Carib Queen; church procession and performance of some of their traditional and ritual activities such as smoke ceremonies and prayer; as well as the opportunity to see the preparation of, and purchase cassava bread.


  • Nona Aquan (2019-present))
  • Jennifer Cassar (2011-2018)
  • Valentina "Mavis" Medina (2000-2011)
  • Justa Werges (1988-2000)
  • Edith Martinez, nee Werges (1962-1987)
  • Maria Fuentes Werges Ojea (1908-1962)
  • Dolores MacDavid, nee Medrano (1875-1908)